The picture of heaven that floats around in most people’s minds is more dependent on Saturday morning cartoons than it is the Bible. When Elmer Fudd gets blown to bits and finds himself in heaven, what do we see? Forlorn saints sitting on isolated clouds, playing mournful harps. That is The Looney Tunes School of Theology, not the Bible.
The Bible reveals a future that is awesome, glorious … and fun. The most common metaphor in the Scriptures for heaven is a party: a feast, a wedding feast. Good food, good friends, loving family. Laughing, dancing, and singing. I don’t know if there are harps in heaven but, if there are, I bet they rock!
And the residents in heaven – imagine meeting Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Mary. C. S. Lewis had a clergyman grandfather who “looked forward to having some very interesting conversations with St. Paul when he got to heaven.” Lewis remarks that “It never seemed to cross his mind that an encounter with St. Paul might be rather an overwhelming experience,” noting that when Dante saw the apostles, “they affected him like mountains.”
Meeting St. Paul might well be overwhelming, but he, at least, is human, like us. The Bible is clear that there are also non-human residents of heaven. Some of them are what we loosely call angels, but others are such otherworldly creatures that if you met one of them walking down the street you would probably have a heart attack. Whatever else heaven is, it will not be boring.
There may be other dimensions than we currently experience. Physicists suggest that more than three dimensions of space (and one of time) exist. One scientist has described these other dimensions as currently “uninflated.” Will they inflate when the one who made all things says, “Behold, I make all things new”? And what do creatures made for eleven dimensions – the number posited by some theoretical physicists – look like?
Over the past few years, I’ve heard the song “I Can Only Imagine” played at many of the funerals I’ve officiated. But we have it on good authority that we can’t imagine. St. Paul wrote: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and human mind has not imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”
And heaven is not the end. We look forward, according to St. Peter, to “a new heaven and a new earth.” There will be work for us to do, friends to meet, beauty to enjoy, projects to complete. Nothing good from the earth we know will be lost, though everything (including us) will need to be changed.
The biblical vision of a just and flourishing humanity in a renewed earth is ravishing. What people call “the end times” turns out to be a fresh beginning, what Jesus called “the renewal of all things.” That phrase translates the Greek word “palingenesis,” which means “genesis again.” Genesis again, but this time there will be no serpent.
In the Revelation, we read that the “old order of things” – the injustice, pain, confusion and seeming meaninglessness of it all – will “pass away.” The false start will be over, and the runners will return to the blocks. The next time the starter’s pistol – or rather, “the voice of the archangel” – sounds, things will go off without a hitch.
The Revelation describes a world in which the Creator dwells with his creatures and old hurts are removed: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” As the refrain of an old Christian hymn puts it, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”
There is no more hopeful vision for humanity than the vision of Jesus. The utopia of the Communists and the Shangri-La-like beyuls of the Tibetan Buddhists pale before it. It is a place where humans are family, God is Father and, because of the gracious intervention of God through Christ, all are welcome.
The invitation stands—but will it be accepted? Or to be more precise, will the one issuing the invitation be accepted? For this is what faith is all about.